Someone recently asked me about the transformation from social science to fiction writing. It is perhaps the greatest challenge I’ve faced in my own writing. Although my journey began with creative writing in high school and college, it quickly proceeded to social science over years of grad school with all its intense reading and writing. Papers, articles, reviews, even the first book (The Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women) were all about mastering the social science genre, and there was a level of comfort found there: the style fit the contours of my thought process. But something was missing.
That first academic book prompted me to write a follow-up (Secrets From the Field), still in the telly social science voice, but a memoir. When it first appeared I referred to it as the fun half to the first book, the scenes behind the scenes, the side of anthropological writing we cannot include in our academic writing. Maybe that’s why I called them “secrets.” They were the personal side, the relationships, experiences and blunders which drove the information first outlined.
The idea for the current book (Talk Till The Minutes Run Out) began in 2011 when I was working as an interpreter among Swat Pashtuns in the U.S., and became immersed in their lives, in the struggles of immigrants’ life in general. I already had an intimate knowledge of Swat Valley and people’s life there and was discovering what it took to uproot that life to a new location and give it new meaning. The more people I met, the more I knew I had to somehow make their cause and story known. I decided to take all those people I knew, both from my years of ethnographic fieldwork in Swat, Pakistan, as well as all those I knew living in America, and create a single fictional character whose story would tell both sides. I know – I still think like a social scientist. But I was determined to make this a fiction novel. After all, isn’t that what a historical fiction author does? They infuse their knowledge and expertise into a fictional story.
“Show, don’t tell” is perhaps the one thing writers hear the most. Social science is all about telling, while fiction is all about showing, making it pop like the accent wall in a room, bringing the statement to life and giving it shape and meaning with something that draws the reader in to participate and invest. It turns the telly description into a showy dialog. I used to criticize our modern “dialog-driven fiction,” to pounce on authors for doing it all for the screen writers. My idols were Theodore Dreiser, Wallace Stegner, and John Dos Passos, whose mastery of descriptive writing could hold me spellbound for hours without any need for dialog. Really? Had our attention spans so reduced that our eyes could no longer handle a long break-less prose? Did everything have to be broken to short and choppy to accommodate a faster read? I’ve learned to embrace the style, to understand the difference.
The greatest challenge, again, has been this transformation. And what I’ve learned from it in this debut novel, I am now transposing into my next novel, a family history told by its heirlooms.